Judge: All Sentencing Options Open For Accused Looters
Defendants in more than 40 summer looting cases in Bloomington and Normal will not be allowed to present fully negotiated pleas to resolve their cases, a judge said Thursday, in a decision that leaves all sentencing options from probation to prison on the table.
Judge William Yoder told defense attorney William Sue he will not consider plea offers negotiated by the state and defense attorneys in any of the looting-related cases if the deals include a specific sentence. Sue represents Stephanie Lancaster, 37, of Bloomington.
“I’m not going to bind myself to any plea agreement,” Yoder told Sue.
Sue requested a 402 conference, a closed-door discussion where a proposed plea is discussed by lawyers and the judge. Yoder, Sue and prosecutor David Fitt met in Yoder's chambers for about 15 minutes; details of the discussion were not disclosed, but a Dec. 2 status hearing was set for Lancaster, who is charged with looting, mob action and burglary.
Sue declined to comment after the hearing.
Yoder did not elaborate on his reasons for refusing to consider fully negotiated plea agreements, the method used to resolve the majority of criminal cases in McLean County and other jurisdictions.
In declining to consider plea deals that had been reached in most of the cases, Yoder has forced defendants to either face a bench or jury trial or enter an open plea that includes a guilty plea to one or more charges without a specific sentence negotiated with the state.
Most of the defendants are charged with burglary, theft and looting – all felonies carrying potential prison sentences of 1 to 7 years. Probation, including Second Chance probation for first offenders, may be an option for many offenders.
With Second Chance probation, a felony is removed from a person’s record after they complete probation. Other options for expungement of a felony can take years.
Two nights of looting followed peaceful protests in Bloomington in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Police estimated overtime costs for Bloomington, Normal and state police assigned to the looting at more than $126,000. Normal police vehicles were damaged to the tune of $76,000 as officers guarded Target in Normal, according to NPD estimates.
Sheriff Jon Sandage said his staff logged 300 overtime hours guarding the jail and Law and Justice Center during protests.
Several stores were heavily damaged as rioters smashed their way into businesses and walked out with electronics and other merchandise, with much of the criminal activity caught on surveillance used by police to track down the accused.
For most of the defendants accused of looting, burglary and mob action, the charges represent their first felonies. Defense lawyers routinely request the state’s Second Chance Probation program in such cases.
Veering away from plea deals
The first indication that the plea deals offered in looting cases would not move through normal channels came Sept. 1, when Yoder rejected a proposed plea deal that would have resolved Anthony Crose’s mob action charges, along with a pending aggravated drunken driving charge to which he pleaded guilty in May. The rejected plea included probation as a sentence for the 21-year-old Bloomington man.
Defense lawyer Jennifer Patton represents 19-year-old Ayanna Gibbs on felony charges related to the lootings and a 2020 marijuana case. The cases are currently pending on Judge Scott Drazewski’s docket. Patton said she is aware of Yoder’s stance in the looting cases.
Patton supports Second Chance probation for young offenders.
“Second Chance probation is important because it offers exactly what it says: a second chance. People can take advantage of programs through probation and get their lives back on track. They can get a job and finish their education. Hopefully, they realize they’ve made a bad decision and it’s a path they don’t want to go down,” said Patton.
The defendants in the looting range in age from 18 to 37; most are under 25 and five are under 18.
The categorization of defendants based on similar charges fails to take into account each individual’s circumstances and backgrounds, said Douglas Godfrey, law professor at ITT Chicago-Kent College of Law.
“We’re supposed to look at each individual as an individual, not as a member of a sub-class,” said Godfrey, adding for young adults, “there’s tremendous collateral consequences of a felony.”
Yoder will require a pre-sentence report for each defendant in the looting cases. He said Thursday the reports will allow him to see both aggravating and mitigating evidence in each case before sentencing. The reports take about 45 days for court services to compile.
Judges, Godfrey noted, “have a tremendous amount of discretion in state courts” when in comes to sentencing. “Any sentence imposed is a judicial order and only the judge can impose a sentence.”
Judges also are free to accept or reject plea deals brought to them.
Public defender Carla Barnes, whose office represents most of the looting cases, and State’s Attorney Don Knapp declined to comment after the hearing.
The next round of status hearings set for early December when new pleas offers may be presented could provide more insight into Yoder’s position on sentences for the accused looters.
Yoder said his sentencing decision will follow a review of the pre-sentence information.
“I will impose a sentence I believe is appropriate for those offenses,” the judge said Thursday.
Comparisons to arena case
As word of the accused looter’s rejected plea deal made its way around McLean County’s legal community, comparisons were made to the highly publicized plea deal approved by Yoder for John Butler, who faced more than 40 felonies in connection with his management of the city-owned arena. Butler pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge and paid $430,000 in restitution to the city. He also is serving 91 days of house arrest.
“I think it’s very comparable,” Patton said of the Butler and looter cases. “You had comparable charges, but the amount taken by Butler was much more excessive than what was taken in these cases.”
The charges in Butler’s case spanned years, Patton noted, where the looting incidents took place across several nights.
But the state, more than Yoder, gets credit for the outcome of the Butler case, said Patton. The judge was not involved in plea negotiations with Butler, but approved the plea deal negotiated by the defense and state, Patton noted.
The looters have not gone without support.
The Chicago Community Bond Fund paid $80,000 in June to cover the bail of 10 looters as part of the group’s opposition to the cash bail system. Black Lives Matter BloNo supported the releases, saying people awaiting trial should not be held in custody until their cases are heard.
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